July 10, 2016
 • 3 min read

Attention refers to the ability to focus your mind on one specific thought or task. Psychologist William James mentioned that attention means "taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things to deal effectively with others".1

Attention is the feeling of being awake and alert, being able to focus on one particular aspect while ignoring distractors. Sometimes, it is necessary to focus for a sustained period -- this is known as sustained attention.

How is attention modulated?


Several conditions are associated with changes in alertness and sustained attention. One essential element is sleep. The differences in attention are noticed easily in subjects with sleep deprivation. Reaction times on sustained attention tasks like driving are increased in sleep deprived subjects. Studies involving vigilance tasks show that sleep deprived subjects exhibit longer reaction times and increased errors of omission on repetitive tasks in which there is a signal detection component.

Childhood experiences help shape an individual's personality traits, and they also can influence children's attention. In one study, it was shown that when children were exposed to redirective behavior (as opposed to sensitive behavior) from caregivers, "infants shifted their attention more frequently and decreased the duration of their visual attention", indicating that children's' attention can be influenced by caregivers.


While the genetics of attention has not been widely studied in normal humans, there have been numerous studies of how genetics influences attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a heritable neurodevelopmental disorder. Insights on ADHD may inform future research on the genetics of attention in healthy humans. Some of the most prominent genes involved include: CDH13 (which encodes cadherin 13, a negative regulator of nerve cell growth), ASTN2 (which encodes astrotactin 2, a brain protein involved in brain development), and SLC9A9 (encoding the solute carrier family nine protein, a sodium/hydrogen exchanger). (Learn more)


Various compounds have been shown to have a positive impact on attention in scientific studies. Attention is usually measured by performance on computer-based tasks, such as the Rapid Visual Information Processing (RVIP) task, or the Sustained Attention to Response Task. Common metrics recorded are reaction times (time taken to complete an action) and error rates (amount of mistakes made in a task).

There is a large and growing body of knowledge in support of the positive effects of theanine on attention. Most of the existing research is conducted in randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies, with treatment groups for placebo, caffeine alone, and the combination of caffeine and theanine. Typical dosages for theanine run from 100 mg to 250 mg per administration. Many studies have shown that the combination of theanine and caffeine is more effective for boosting attention than either compound taken alone. (Learn more)

While a large amount of the current research is in support of using caffeine and theanine in combination, the use of caffeine alone can be effective for modulating attention. Typical dosages used for caffeine range from as low as 12.5 mg up to 500 mg. (Learn more)

While racetams are typically used in patients with neuropsychiatric disorders, there have not been studies conducted on their usage in modulating attention in healthy subjects. Racetams have been found to have a positive effect on attention in patients with Alzheimer's and epilepsy. (Learn more)

The use of citicoline for improving attention has been proposed for neurological diseases and disorders. For example, citicoline has been found to slow disease progression in Alzheimer's disease. There are limited studies on citicoline's effects on attention in healthy adults. However, one study found that citicoline improves attentional performance in healthy women. (Learn more)

The use of modafinil for improving attention has been extensively studied in both normal adults and adults with neuropsychiatric diseases and disorders. Typical dosages of modafinil in these studies were around 200 mg per administration. Modafinil was found by many studies to improve reaction time and speed up the time taken to perform various subtasks.

Vinpocetine has not been widely studied in the scientific community, although there are a small handful of studies on both normal individuals and those with cognitive or neurological diseases or disorders. (Learn more)

There has been a growing interest in using Ginkgo biloba as a nonstimulant treatment for attention-deficit disorder and attention-deficit hyperactive disorder (ADD/ADHD). Ginkgo biloba has been shown to have beneficial, albeit minor, effects on attention in ADD/ADHD patients. There has been limited scientific research on its usage in normal individuals, and its effects are equivocal across studies. (Learn more)

There have been limited studies on epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), usually found in tea, and its effect on human physiology, and attention as well as other domains of cognition. While neuroprotective effects of EGCG have been suggested, no studies have been found that suggest improvements in attention. (Learn more)

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